Hundreds of African Americans were disinterred from Old Lick Cemetery to make room for Interstate 581. The cemetery is one of a half-dozen sites featured in the documentary "Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke." Photo by Lindsey Hull.

One question can start a movement. Dontrese Brown and Dean Browell asked themselves two —  “What history is not reflected in monuments, and whose stories are not being told?” —  following George Floyd’s 2020 murder. The answers, they found, were hidden. 

Brown and Browell launched “Hidden in Plain Site: Richmond” near the end of 2020. The documentary features 12 Richmond locations that are significant to African American history, with a goal of creating conversations about often overlooked African American history and related historical sites. It uses virtual reality to immerse viewers in the scenes.

“When you look in our history books, those experiences are coming from white America, from people who don’t have the lived experience of historically underrepresented groups,” Brown said. 

Since 2020, Brown and Browell, along with David Waltenbaugh, have created documentaries about the hidden histories of Richmond, the site of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and a location in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Now, they are adding Roanoke to that list. 

Together with a committee in Roanoke, the team has now completed a documentary about the city’s hidden history. The film was first shown at the Dumas Center in May. This week, it will be screened at the Grandin Theatre. 

“It tells such a tremendous story of what we are, who we are, and what we were not only as a city but as a people that have been hidden in plain sight,” said Anita Price, the city’s first Black councilwoman and a member of the documentary’s Roanoke committee.

How to see ‘Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke’

“Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke” will be screened at the Grandin Theatre at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The public can register to attend at this link.

A community conversation about the film will be held at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture at 7 p.m. Aug. 31.

Both events are free to attend. 

Brown said he hopes the “Hidden in Plain Site” films will one day change the world, one narrative at a time. “We may not see it in my lifetime, nor did my slave ancestors,” he said. 

Brown is driven to tell the stories of these underrepresented communities before they are forgotten, he said. “Once our elders are gone, those narratives go with them if they haven’t shared it, which means our total existence could be completely gone,” he said, adding that he feels a lot of responsibility to capture these once-hidden stories.  

Not long after the Richmond documentary launched, Roanoke City Council member Trish White-Boyd became aware of the project, she said. She saw how the filmmakers had brought new life to Richmond’s often overlooked African American history. She knew that the project would be a great fit for Roanoke. 

“[The purpose of the project is] to tell the stories of what Roanoke looked like years ago, and to show the historic impact that certain sites had on our city at that time. But those historical landmarks are no longer there,” Price said.

The filmmakers worked closely with White-Boyd; Douglas Jackson, the city’s arts and culture coordinator; Anita and Charles Price, who volunteer at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture; and numerous others to bring the project to fruition. 

The committee began working on the project in 2021, Anita Price said. 

Henry Street was once known as Roanoke’s Black Wall Street, Charles Price said. “We had newspapers, we had barber shops. We had medical services, we had recreational services. We had places you could eat and places you could shoot pool, and places for evening entertainment. It was a flourishing commercial area,” he said. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

The committee identified six sites in Roanoke that are significant to the African American community:

  • The city’s African American-operated Burrell Memorial Hospital.
  • The site of a Black neighborhood that was demolished to construct Interstate 581 and the Berglund Center.
  • Old Lick Cemetery, from which hundreds of African Americans were disinterred for road construction.
  • Dreamland, an African American recreational park.
  • Henry Street, the center of African American commerce in Roanoke.
  • The site of the family home of Henrietta Lacks, whose story has been told in the book and movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Many Roanoke residents aren’t aware of the history behind these sites, which all were casualties of so-called “urban renewal.”

“Some of the sites, we just walk by daily without knowing the history,” White-Boyd said. The history is important, but it is also painful, she said. 

In most cases, the physical appearance of the sites has significantly changed over the years.

“‘Hidden in Plain Site’ is a unique way of presenting what was and how it was impacted,” Charles Price said. 

People can live in the area for a long time and never hear about this history, according to Browell, who lived in the Roanoke region for about 10 years before moving to Richmond. 

“It was incredibly clear that you could easily go through your entire life and not have a clue about what had happened under your feet or on the roads that you drive on every single day,” he said. 

Browell said that that’s part of what makes the Roanoke “Hidden in Plain Site” project so powerful. Whereas Richmond is a recognized site of systemic racism and unthinkable acts toward African Americans, people might not know Roanoke’s hidden history, he said.

“We get used to the shape of the cities we’re in, and we tend not to ask a whole lot of questions [as to how the development came to be],” Browell said. 

White-Boyd arranged for the “Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke” committee to meet with the filmmakers when they visited the city in the spring of 2022. 

The Richmond team and the Roanoke committee visited each Roanoke location. “[We wanted] to have a better comprehension of the impact of what happened to each of these locations that have been desecrated [and are] just gone,” Anita Price said. 

Hundreds of African Americans were disinterred from Old Lick Cemetery to make room for Interstate 581. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

“It is so important that we acknowledge the history. We don’t want to cover it up or necessarily be ashamed of it. It’s important to acknowledge it and respect it,” she said. 

The visit was sobering, particularly when they stopped at Old Lick Cemetery. Price said she thought of the deceased who had physically been removed from the site, and about the overgrowth that had occurred in the years since.

“It was like, where’s your sense of humanity and respect for human life?” she said.  

White-Boyd and the Prices connected the filmmakers with people who could provide documents and help with research, Browell said. He sifted through thousands of pages of city council meeting minutes to identify differing narratives, and he explored the archives of The Roanoke Times and other publications. 

“You start to see patterns that add further depth to the stories you’re seeing,” he said. 

Eventually, he had found enough information to write the documentary’s script. 

“Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke” is similar to the Richmond project in style. Cameras pan to everyday scenes — a parking lot, a grassy field. Three-dimensional renderings of historic structures appear on screen. 

In the Richmond film, one of the first sites shown is the location of the city gallows, built adjacent to the African American cemetery. 

A narrator describes the events that once took place there. In the background play the sounds of slaves, crowded into a jail prior to heading to the auction block or to the gallows.  

Brown remembers standing in that exact spot while working on the project. “I was standing on the burial ground for Negros in the city of Richmond. … I understood that I was literally standing on the shoulders of those before me, those that have provided me the opportunity to continue to uplift these narratives that have been completely erased,” he said.

The films are presented in such a way that audiences can see and feel the power of those moments. Sound immersion is an important piece of the puzzle. 

Waltenbaugh pieced together the sound clips for the Richmond video — the audible bursts of activity that make those historic places come alive for audience members. He’s done the same for the Roanoke project.

“When [viewers] turn their heads and see Burrell Hospital, they’ll hear the sounds of a cart being pushed through a hallway, for instance,” Browell said.

Rather than merely showing locations as they can be seen today, he said, “Hidden in Plain Site” takes viewers back into history and gives them a sense of what the locations looked like when they were in their heyday. 

“We don’t want to show dilapidated homes and locations,” Browell said. 

Take the Henrietta Lacks house in Roanoke, for example. Browell said that the team hired a 3D renderer to create images that reflected what the house would have looked like when Lacks was a child. They identified the appropriate materials for the time period, as well as the overall design of a house that would have been built in that place and time. The result is a rendering that reflects the family home that Lacks’ father might have dreamed of. 

“Here was a man who worked at the railroad and walked by this plot of land every single day, with the idea that he wanted to build a house there for his family,” Browell said, explaining that he wanted to portray the Lacks family as a Black American family first so that viewers could relate to Lacks on a more personal level. 

For the members of the “Hidden in Plain Site: Roanoke” committee, it is important to tell those stories, both good and bad. The documentary is just a start, according to White-Boyd. She said they would eventually like to add more sites to the project. 

Anyone with a virtual reality headset will be able to watch the film online, Browell said. The film will also be available to watch using virtual reality headsets at the Harrison Museum, Charles Price said. 

“Once it’s kind of fully out in the wild, it is really up to the imagination of [the people of] Roanoke as to how to take advantage of it,” Browell said. 

White-Boyd envisions the film being shown to large groups of students, she said. The film has also been submitted to Blue Ridge PBS and the Discovery Channel, she said.

The team is prepared to tell the stories of underrepresented communities across the nation, and even the world, according to Brown. 

“‘Hidden in Plain Site’ exists to use technology to change the future of culture education,” he said.

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...